I can’t help but have my race in the back of my mind when I’m ordering.
I always hope no one catches me.
I look over my shoulder as I reach for the spoon. I dish it onto my plate as quickly as possible. I make sure to follow it with big helpings of quinoa and quiche, hoping they'll soften the impact of the offending fruit. This has been my mid-day routine every day at work since my office began serving watermelon at its company-sponsored lunch. My operation only intensifies when fried chicken hits the menu.
It’s not the selection itself that bothers me: Watermelon and friend chicken are decidedly delicious foods. But they’ve also been stereotypically associated with “my people” for quite some time, and that makes them a lot harder for me to swallow.
I place “my people” in quotes because although I am black, I have been told most of my life that I am “not really that black.” Over the years, my not-that-blackness has emerged as a dominant influence over my racial identity. There’s even a food-related term for people like me: They call us “Oreos.”
That means that when colleagues I’ve only spoken with over the phone finally meet me in person, they greet me with comments like “Huh, I didn’t know you were black.” Network executives have read my scripts and said, “I would have never guessed that a black person wrote this.” (Sometimes, this is followed by “So, can you write black?”). Casting directors have told me that if I could just “be more, you know, black,” I’d be easier to put on TV. The identity cuts the other way, too. An organization of black activists I used to work for said I could never truly be one of them because I grew up in a suburb called “Breckenridge,” play the flute, speak French, and don't hate the police.
Being accepted as a member of white suburbia comes with a complex set of challenges that extends down to my daily diet. Because they have coded me as “not that black,” the white people in my life are comfortable airing their deepest insights into black people, and often, those little observations concern food. A boyfriend once told me: “I’m not trying to be racist. I’m just saying that on campus, there was a Subway and a KFC right next to each other. There were never black people at the Subway and there were always black people at the KFC. I’m not saying the stereotype is bad, I’m just saying maybe there’s something to it. I’m just saying.”
And because of what he was “just saying,” I’m hyperaware of what I’m ordering if it’s remotely black-people related. I love me a good crispy chicken wrap, but sometimes just can’t bring myself to order it, lest someone tacitly think, “of course.” If I get the urge to order breaded chicken while I’m out, I try to dress it up a bit—Cordon Bleu (pronounced with the appropriate accent, natch) usually does the trick. If it’s a catered affair and fried chicken is the only choice, I sometimes wonder if I should mention aloud that I’m really in the mood for halibut and am disappointed at the presentation of the poultry, or just lie and say I’m vegetarian.
It sounds strange, but breaking culinary expectations is kind of a rush. I got that same feeling back in elementary school every time I opened my mouth in front of a new teacher. I didn’t piece it together then, but I’ve since learned that the surprised look on their faces was probably a response to my lack of a “blaccent.” Later, in high school, I liked being the only one of me at French Honor Society competitions or Academic Decathlon meets. Even today, I get a little bit of a kick when I stand out at swing dancing events, the Equestrian Center, or the whisky bar where I like to hang out.
Recently, though, my proficiency in caucasian was tested at the whitest dessert spot on earth: The frozen yogurt shop. When I discovered a new Pinkberry location five minutes from my house, I was thrilled. True to my suburban tastes, I have an unhealthy love of all things fro-yo. I joined the line for a Styrofoam cup of cold, tart goodness. And then this happened:
Pinkberry employee: Hi, have you been to Pinkberry before?
Me: You know, I’ve done Menchie’s and Yogurtland before, but not Pinkberry.
Pinkberry: Well, our flavors are up there, and you can sample any flavor you want.
Pinkberry: Do you want to try the watermelon?
Me: You know, I think I’m feeling the tart a little more.\n
Initially, I shrugged off the exchange. I even went back for seconds a week later. Same set-up: Me craving frozen yogurt. Pinkberry worker making some interesting assumptions about my flavor profile:
Pinkberry: What can I get for you?
Me: Mango and original tart, please.
Me: Mango and original tart, please.
Pinkberry: Oh, okay. Are you with them?\n
I turned to see a family at the back of the store. They entered about three minutes after I did. We hadn’t spoken to each other. Our body language in no way suggested we were friends. But they were black, like me.
Pinkberry: Okay. I’m sorry, did you say wa–
Maybe Pinkberry was really trying to move the watermelon that week. And the week after that. (For the record, the signs outside the store were pushing the seasonal salted caramel). Maybe I did really resemble the strangers standing behind me in a meaningful way. Whatever it was, I suddenly felt uncomfortable.
For every moment I’m thrilled to fit in with the white kids, I’m reminded that the feeling is also a temporary escape from those same people stereotyping me as black. This is the flip-side of my double agent life:
I have sat silent in a car while my friends laughed about her grandmother’s habit of calling Brazil nuts “nigger toes.”
I have listened as another friend informed me that her mother says her hair looks like a "Pickaninny" when it isn't groomed exactly right.
I have lent an ear as a friend complained about a proliferation of Asians at a local university.
I have tried not to explode when a friend told me he felt uncomfortable watching one of the Bring It On movies in the theater—not because he admitted to going to see one of the Bring It On movies, but because he was the only white person there. I have attempted to calmly explain to him that I reside on the uncomfortable side of the race equation every day of my life. He nodded like he understood. Then, he told me that his experience was "different."
Through it all, I've also denied myself a hell of a lot of fried chicken. It’s easier to not to think about the logic of these things. If you're a member of a population that doesn’t have to, that’s great. But what else am I supposed to think about when I’m poking around for watermelon cubes that look like they were cut from the center of the fruit and not from right next to the rind?